The psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has shown that the tail end of any experience is disproportionally important to how we look back at the whole. But endings are tricky business; how do you know when you got there?
There’s a scene at end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There will be blood, where the alcoholic millionaire Mr Daniels sits down in the middle of his private bowling alley. He’s just beaten the preacher man Eli to death and when the servant checks in to see if there’s anything his master needs, Mr Daniels answers:
Aristotle would have been happy with how this dark story comes to an appropriately sinister end. In his definition, a story is perfect when nothing can be subtracted and there’s nothing left to add. When Mr Daniels says he’s finished, he’s also reached his personal end. It’s a good illustration of the deepest meaning of the word; there’s something very final about being finished.
Which is why it doesn’t translate well to the world of product management.
Steve Jobs was arguably the most talented, effective and ruthless product person who ever lived. It’s widely known that he was an obsessive control freak, but he was actually pretty good at releasing *perfectly unfinished* products into the world.
In the last great launch of his life, the iPhone was ridiculed by critics for “not even” packing the “basic” functionality of multi-tasking.
The rest, of course, is history.
If we can learn something from that, it must have something to do with what engineers like to call Definition Of Done.
Being “done” with something is less final than to be finished. It simply means that you’ve gone through a number of activities and there are no items left on your todo-list. Which means it carries little if any information about quality. In common parlance, the word done has a positive ring, but in product development it’s a real rabbit hole.
So how do you decide whether something is done? Or rather: who gets to define the meaning of done?
When Steve Jobs told the team of developers on the Macintosh project that “real artists ship”, he really meant this:
Swallow your pride and deploy that code, because hell will have frozen over before you’ve achieved you idea of perfection and the market opportunity is now!
Or to put it in different terms:
You don’t get to define done.
(There’s a lovely post over at folklore.org from January 1984 where Andy Hertzfeld — officially the “software wizard” of the Macintosh team — describes the collective desperation as Steve denied the developers more time to “fix the last bugs” before shipping the Mac. Do take time to read it, it’ll transports you.)
So there’s no such thing as “being done”. It’s always about the context, about who has power over the Definition Of Done.
And it’s not necessarily the product manager who always has that power. You’ve probably heard developers distinguish between something being just done as opposed to done-done. As in:
“Did we just satisfy the PM, or have we built something we can really stand for?”
(For years I worked on a team where the standing joke was that something was either done, done-done, or “done-done-Danni“. Danni was a meticulous senior engineer who set the quality bar pretty high.)
The tug-of-war between done and done-done is always going to remain. But seeing it as a tension between product- and engineering-centric perspectives — the way I’ve just suggested — isn’t quite right. It’s not quite right because it builds on the assumption that company cultures exists on the spectrum where engineering and product represent two opposites.
They do not, in fact.
Let’s look at Apple again. It’s widely seen as a product-centric company where engineers are kept on a short leash. And it might be true to some extent (you certainly get that feeling from reading Andy Hertzfeld’s Real artists ship-post), but it’s not the whole truth or nothing but the truth. Which is made evident by this clip, where Steve Jobs is on the stage during “Antenna gate” saying:
“Apple is *an engineering-driven company*. We’ve got some of the finest scientists and engineers here in the world, in the areas that we need to create our products. And the way we work is we wanna find out what the real problem is before we start to come up with solutions.”
So perhaps the done vs. done-done tension is what the British would call a red herring; something that distracts you from a more relevant issue?
I think so, yes.
Perfection *is* a valid ambition and striving with passion towards it is what made Steve Jobs such a powerful role model. But on a fast moving market, being “perfectly done” is always a relative measure. This is something Pablo Picasso captured beautifully in the following quote:
“It’s always necessary to seek for perfection. Obviously, for us, this word no longer has the same meaning. To me, it means: from one canvas to the next, always go further, further…”
So if being done or finished is so tricky, how do you know when to move onto the next canvas? I’m thinking there is a word in the Swedish language that gives a hint. That word is klar.
Klar has multiple meanings. It basically translates to clear / clarity. But being klar is is also a way of saying you’re done. Used in this sense, it brings the quality of having achieved clarity, which I think is what we always strive for, isn’t it?
The degree of clarity in a product might not always define its commercial success, but it certainly is what makes it legendary. Just think about why the original Macintosh and the first iPod are exhibited at MoMA. These products weren’t perfect and they didn’t pack a lot of fancy features. They were however clearly different from what came before, so much so in fact, that they’ve become iconic.
Now iconic is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but what it really means is something that is so clearly defined that it gets to represent a whole category.
When your product has achieved that, you’re klar.